Running and curating the arts tents of regional music festivals gave Duncan Maurice an opportunity to observe the behaviour of the next generation of arts consumers. They are not, Maurice says, people who like to be told what to do, where to sit and how and when to respond to a performance.
''There's been a real shift. Young people will come into your venue, look at something, photograph it, tweet about it and leave,'' he says. ''Social media is reconstructing the way we consume entertainment and the arts.''
Performing artists can choose to ignore this behavioural shift or try to engage the audience in new ways, Maurice says. His new theatre project, The Silence Came, is an attempt to do the latter.
On consecutive Monday evenings, Maurice and a company of 14 writer-performers will occupy all three floors of a 165-year-old sandstone house-turned restaurant in Burton Street, Darlinghurst. Once admitted, the audience is free to roam and interact with what they see in whatever way they wish. They can observe, photograph and tweet, answer their phones, talk and leave at will. With several episodes of the drama playing simultaneously, each person in the audience will experience something unique.
''It's self-drive,'' says Maurice. ''Nobody's being told sit here, do this, laugh now. You can do whatever you want.''
Site-specific, immersive work is rare in Sydney. Recent examples include a walking/performance tour Quay to the City devised by Australian Theatre for Young People last year; Griffin Theatre's Lovely Ugly (2012) took its audience on a walking tour of Kings Cross; Through These Lines, a World War I drama, was staged in the underground vaults in the defence tunnels in Mosman's Headland Park in 2010; and Defiance, a dramatised history of infectious disease control, played in the quarantine station at North Head in 2008.
The Silence Came is influenced by the work of the British company Punch Drunk, who, since 2000, have created site-specific, immersive works in empty buildings, shuttered industrial sites and disused warehouses. The company came to international attention for its 2011 off-Broadway hit Sleep No More - a spooky, promenade adaptation of Macbeth performed in a deserted hotel in downtown New York. ''A voyeur's delight, with all the creepy, shameful pleasures that entails,'' wrote the New York Times critic Ben Brantley.
''Punch Drunk are famous for putting the audience in masks,'' says Maurice. ''It stops people talking. We're not going to do that. One thing that will happen is couples and groups of friends will be split up for the duration of the performance. We're aiming for an authentic individual experience.''
Maurice won't say what will be going on beyond describing it as ''a distorted portrait of modern urban life'', but there's a clue in his reference to the maxim attributed to the 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke: ''The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.''
In The Silence Came, a world is created, says Maurice, and it comes under threat. The audience can intervene and, in doing so, steer the outcome of the drama.
''It's 'Choose your own adventure' in a way, but more complex than that,'' Maurice says. ''If the audience wants to get involved to the point that the whole event goes off the book, that's exactly the kind of theatre we want to make.''
The Silence Came will be performed at The Commons, 32 Burton Street, Darlinghurst, April 28, May 5, 12, 19 and 26.